Friday, September 27, 2013


It had been photos of Borobudur that had initially got me interested in visiting Indonesia. Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the southern hemisphere and the biggest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is also billed as the greatest single piece of classical architecture in Indonesia. It was therefore part of our trip that I was more excited about than many others.

Borobudur is located only 40km West of Jogyakarta, however we set off at 4am because we had opted to pay extra on top of the already substantial standard entrance fee to enter the temple complex (via an extremely posh hotel) before dawn to watch the sun rise. Upon arrival we were issued with torches and batik print sarongs which are compulsory apparel in the temple complex. We followed a path in complete darkness until we reached the temple, and carefully negotiated the steps to the top whilst catching a few previews of the temple's stone reliefs by shining our torches. It was really exciting as we didn't yet know what the temple really looked like, and exploring it in the dark made it feel like we were doing something we weren't supposed to.

At the top of the temple we carefully made a lap before settling in our chosen position to watch the sun come up. Unfortunately the sunrise was not particularly special that day; it was overcast to the point where it wasn't exactly clear when the sun had risen. However, what was really special was to be sat atop a huge 1200 year old monument as it was revealed around us as it became light. A really unique experience!

Borobudur is a huge multi-tiered stupa the top tier of which is covered with 72 small bell-shaped stupas surrounding the main stupa. As the sun rose the silhouettes of the stupas appeared, and the details of what surrounded us was revealed.  

However it was only after it was completely light that it became apparent that each of the smaller stupas houses a statue of Buddha looking outwards from the main stupa (albeit some no longer had their heads attached to do any looking) that could only just be seen through the gaps between the blocks that surrounded them. A couple of the stupas had also been removed to reveal the Buddha statues inside. Beyond the temple itself the views around were really nice, although unfortunately the visibility wasn't clear enough to see the volcanoes and cliffs which surround Borobudur on all sides.

After we had spent an hour or so on the top level tourists who had not been able to enter earlier began to arrive, so we descended to explore the 4 lower tiers which are completely covered with intricate stone reliefs and more Buddha statues.

What we didn't appreciate at the time was that Borobudur was built as a representation of the Buddhist cosmic mountain. Hence, the base of the temple is the real world and as you follow the tiers upwards the reliefs depict the path to enlightenment and the top tier represents nirvana. We were effectively going backwards - starting at nirvana and working our way down to the real world of desires and passions. Even so, the carvings were really impressive in terms of the level of detail and skill involved and in terms of the huge size and number of them.

Only when we reached the bottom and were able to see the whole of the temple for the first time were we able to appreciate the huge size of Borobudur. It doesn't have the same striking silhouette as the tall temples at Prambanan as it is only about 35m tall, but each side of the base is around 200m meaning that it covers a huge area.

What is almost as amazing as the temple itself is the fact that it was abandoned for nearly 1000 years before being “rediscovered' by the British in 1815, and that nothing was done with it until the 1970's. It's hard to imagine that something so spectacular could go ignored for any length of time.

It suffices to say that despite our expectations being extremely high, and despite the sunrise not being as nice as we had hoped, Borobudur did not disappoint. After seeing many spectacular sights on our travels we are getting harder and harder to impress, but Borobudur was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


The first of two great day trips from Jogjakarta was to Prambanan, a remarkable collection of 9th century Hindu temples about 18km East. Although the compound originally consisted of 240 temples only 6 of the main temples remain in tact. The surviving temples are stunningly beautiful; tall and intricately carved stone buildings that curve up to a point and are reminiscent of parts of Angkor Wat. They are surrounded by the ruins of the numerous minor temples that are fun to explore (as ever in Asia there is very little restriction as to where you can go and how close you can get to ancient ruins!). Photos really don't do Prambanan justice because they don't capture how it feels to be amongst so many beautiful temples right next to one another, but they do it justice more than word:

We elected to visit in the afternoon so that we could see the sun setting behind the temples, and it proved to be a good decision as the sunset was beautiful.

After sunset we took a short journey to see a ballet at the Prambanan Open-Air Theatre. The ballet was performed on an open air stage with the temples, now beautifully illuminated, in the background. It was a stunning setting.

The performance itself was not ballet as we know it, but a traditional Javanese dance that told the story of the Ramayana; a popular (and epic) Hindu story with which we would be quite familiar by the end of our time in Indonesia. I won't bore you with the details of the story but it revolves around the kidnapping of a princess and her fiance's subsequent attempts to rescue her which involves a deer that turns into a giant, magical spells, an army of monkeys, lots of fighting and arrow shooting, and a fair bit of fire. It was really enjoyable – the costumes and music were great and the dancing was really interesting (it shared some features with the Kathakali performance we had seen in Kochi). Maybe I would make more trips to the ballet if it typically involved fighting and fire!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jogy: smarter than the average Indonesian city

Our first two stops in Indonesia had not been the best introduction to the country, but thankfully things quickly got much better after we arrived in Jogyakarta, approximately half way along Java.

Jogyakarta (or Jogy as it is affectionately known amongst travellers) is a really pleasant, relaxed, friendly and arty city. For reasons which should become clear after the next couple of blog posts it is a hugely popular place for tourists, and as such it has become a bit of a traveller enclave full of restaurants selling good western food and beer alongside the ever-present fried rice, fried noodles and satay. It also has a thriving street art scene, although for some reason I didn't find the time to take photos of the best work we saw.

The volume of tourists means that Jogyakarta isn't really, on the face of it, a proper Indonesian experience, in much the same way as Goa isn't a proper Indian experience and Pokhara isn't a proper Nepalese experience. However the extremely busy market along the main road is equally popular with tourists and locals alike, and we had a pleasant wander around some backstreets away from the tourist areas where the locals seemed a little perplexed as to what we were doing there, but extremely friendly.

The only real sight to see in Jogyakarta itself is Kraton, the walled old city which is a fairly interesting area to wander around. On the second attempt (after arriving too late first time around) we went into the Sultan's Palace which was a bit underwhelming compared to some of the palaces we have previously seen due to its understated Javanese architecture, but interesting enough. Unlike most palaces we have previously visited, Jogyakarta's royal palace is still occupied by the Sultan which makes it a bit unique (and explains the short opening hours).

However, the reason for Jogyakarta's popularity with tourists is not the sights in the city itself but its proximity to some really remarkable sights which are worthy of separate blog posts if for no other reason than the number of photos.
Translates as "You crossed a smile Jogyakarta" according to Google Translate.


We didn't originally plan to go to Bandung; however we discovered that all trains and buses from Jakarta to Jogjakarta were booked up and didn't really want to stay any longer in Jakarta so made a quick decision to head to Bandung instead, and subsequently move from there to Jogjakarta.

There really isn't much to say about Bandung itself – it's a quiet, slightly grim mid-sized city with nothing of real interest in it apart from a mall with a food court (which included a Texas Chicken restaurant which we both enjoyed for different reasons). Our guidebook had informed us however, that only 40 minutes away from Bandung was a volcano that we could visit and that from the volcano there was a lovely scenic walk back towards the city via a tea house. It sounded like a nice day-trip, but unfortunately it wasn't quite as straightforward as it sounded.

The journey to the Tangkuban Prahu volcano took nearer 4 hours than 30 minutes. We were expecting to take two buses, however each bus we took dropped us off earlier than we had asked and paid to be dropped off meaning that it actually took us 3 buses and a short walk to get to the entrance. Each time we were told to disembark it took us some time to establish exactly where we were and then to negotiate a new fare with other bus drivers who seemed well aware that we were stuck in Nowheresville and therefore had very little leverage to negotiate a decent price.

When we finally arrived at the entrance to the park we passed a long line of cars queuing to enter and some hawkers selling face masks, paid the relatively high entrance fee and, in the absence of any buses willing to take us began the walk up to the first crater (we had agreed with our final bus driver that he would take us to the top of the volcano but he subsequently changed his mind which resulted in an argument and a partial refund). The walk up the road was extremely unpleasant; the weather was hot, the road was steep and had no sidewalk, we were constantly being passed by traffic and it quickly became apparent that the reason for people wearing face masks was not due to the fumes from the craters but the fumes from the hundreds of vehicles driving up to the top of the volcano. It appeared to us that the park was run with little regard for protecting the local environment using funds raised from visitors.

We were extremely relieved when we arrived at the entrance to the first crater, the Domas Crater, however our experience was about to get worse. As we attempted to start the walk to the crater a security guard stopped us and informed us that we had to employ a guide to visit the crater and that the fee for a guide was 3 times the price we had each already paid for entering the park. This was clearly not right. We had been informed when purchasing our ticket that we could visit both craters and either we had been mislead about what our ticket entitled us to see or, more likely, the security guard was in cahoots with the local guides and seeking to extort money from us. We informed the security guard as much, however he became aggressive and prevented us from passing, referring us to a piece of paper on the wall which supported what he was telling us (as if by printing out a typed statement it somehow made their extortion legitimate) and refusing to adopt any form of logical reasoning. We had been messed around too much on this trip already to let this lie and so we marched (it was either a march or a stomp, and possibly a combination of the two) back down to the park entrance, identified who was in charge and insisted that either we were given a full refund or we were accompanied back to the crater entrance. After some discussion we were driven back up to the crater and allowed to enter without paying a further fee; frustratingly both the security guard and the park manager refused to acknowledge that we had been lied to despite accepting that it was not, in fact, necessary for us to instruct a guide. Grrrrrrrr! It was an unpleasant flashback to the corruption with which we had become familiar in India (Monique hypothesised that it might be something to do with the common “Ind” in the names. Perhaps a future trip to Indiana will prove or disprove her theory).

With half of the day already gone we accepted that we were not going to have time to do the scenic tea house walk described in our guidebook, and therefore should try to make the most out of the volcano. The short walk to the first crater was straightforward (presumably had we instructed a guide he would have said helpful things like “continue along the path” followed by “this is the crater” that would inevitably have enhanced the experience) and we cheered ourselves up by purchasing a fantastic wooden tiger carved by a local man. The crater itself was pretty cool – it wasn't particularly pretty to look at, however we had completely free-reign to explore the various steaming pools of bubbling water. The sulfurous fumes made the experience a little smelly, however I really enjoyed exploring the strange rock formations and getting really close to the bubbling pools. It was actually possible to buy an egg and use a net to lower it into the hottest pool to boil it, however the pervasive smell of egg from the fumes put us off the idea.

Monique even sat with her feet in one of the cooler (although still pretty hot) pools and made friends with some Indonesian tourists.

We then made our way up a steep path to the main crater. The area immediately around the main crater seemed to be a popular hangout for the local people as it was crowded and full of stalls and not particularly pleasant, however the crater itself was great. I find physical geography really interesting and had always wanted to see a volcano up close, and we were able to stand right at the edge of the crater and look down into it. Again, it wasn't the prettiest of sights, but certainly impressive in terms of scale and what it was we were witnessing.  Tangkuban Perahu is classed as dormant, however it last erupted as recently as 1983 and the steady stream of smoke from the crater suggested that there was plenty of activity still going on not far from the surface.

By the time we had made our way around the accessible part of the crater in search of the best views (and stopped to eat some amazing strawberries) the park was due to close so we headed out. Thankfully the journey back was far more straightforward as we paid a couple of young guys to take us on their motorbikes to the town where we knew we could take one bus straight back to Bandung.

It had been an extremely long and frustrating day, however what we had seen made it worthwhile. Knowing what I know now (i.e. that Indonesia has far more impressive volcanoes that can be visited in a far more pleasant manner) I wouldn't recommend a visit to Bandung and the Tangkuban Perahu volcano, however the stop had served its purpose – we had gotten out of Jakarta, were a few hours closer to Jogjakarta where we hoped our time in Indonesia would become much more enjoyable, and we had seen some pretty interesting stuff in the process.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


We weren't too disappointed to be flying out of Malaysia as its Asia-light brand of culture and jungle-light national park just didn't compare to what we had previously experienced both during this trip and our previous trip to South East Asia. Monique summed up her disinterest in the country by dubbing it “Meh-laysia”

Our first impression of Indonesia was pretty good as a fast-food chain had a veggie burger available for Monique and the bus from the airport to central Jakarta came complete with wi-fi (although I wasn't able to make use of it before discovering that I was connected to the wi-fi on a different bus that had been parked up next to us). Unfortunately this good impression was spoiled by a taxi driver who couldn't find our hotel (or at least pretended that he couldn't find it) and repeatedly got out of the taxi to ask for directions whilst leaving the meter running, and was then very angry when we refused to pay the full amount on the meter.

Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, is a massive city with over 28 million inhabitants. Unfortunately it has very little in the way of sights (in contrast to the rest of Indonesia which is chock-full of interesting sights) so we stayed for only one night before moving onwards. Before leaving we had time for another run-in with a taxi driver who conveniently couldn't find his way around the city and wanted us to pay for his ineptitude, and then to enjoy the Medan Merdaka – a huge area of grass right in the center of the city with the Monas Tower.

As Ramadan had just ended it was a national holiday so lots of families were out enjoying the open space. We decided to join in the many people flying kites and bought one of our own (insisting on a patterned one and refusing one with Christiano Ronaldo's face on it). Our history with kites is one of failure; Winnie the Pooh has been landed on his head multiple times in Cannon Hill Park without getting above head-height, and purchasing a more serious kite was a serious waste of money. Initial signs suggested that this would be another kite-related failure to add to our c.v. As we struggled to get the kite above the height of the trees where it could catch the breeze. The solution: ask a small child to assist us in our endeavour. The result: the combined efforts of the entire family of said small child managed to get the kite flying to a point where I could take over and take the glory. They even gave us an extra spindle of kite string so we could fly it twice as high. The whole experience – the interaction with the family and then flying the kite – was really fun and by far the highlight of our time in Jakarta.

With our previous kite-related failures left firmly behind us we headed East of Jakarta by minibus to Bandung.